(written in 2006, revised august 2017)
When I got on the overnight bus leaving Luang Prabang for the capital of Laos, Vientiane, I was told that the trip would take around 10 hours. My destination was the Plain of Jars, in the north west of Laos but to get there, I had to go via Vientiane.
The bus was a Japanese hand-me-down at least 20 years old. Instead of consigning their old buses to the wreckers, the Japanese fixed them up and then donated them to underdeveloped nations. When I got on the bus, I noticed that near the door, printed in English was:
‘This bus terminates at Tokyo Central Station’.
It left on time: at 7pm.
Two hours later, it broke down.
By this time we were in wild mountainous country.
There was a piercing shrieking noise. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and we all got out. Twenty metres or so down the road was what looked like a long piece of metal pipe. Closer inspection revealed it was a section of the drive shaft – the shaft running under the bus which transfers the power of the motor at the front to the axle at the back. A section of the drive shaft had snapped off and shot along the road like a bullet and left a deep gouge in the tarmac.
The other westerners on board – some young Americans and Germans and an older Englishman – laughed in disbelief. Even I, with my limited mechanical knowledge, knew that we were in for a long night. There was no way you could just fix this problem up on the spot; it wasn’t like a flat tyre or faulty motor. This was a pretty basic sort of issue.
We would have to wait for another bus – and who knew how long that would take?
The night was perfectly still and clear, the sky a blaze of stars.
There was no moon.
And after a while, we also realised: it was cold.
The driver waved down a Hyundai light commercial vehicle heading in the direction of Luang Prabang. There wasn’t much traffic on the road and he was lucky to get something as soon as he did.
We assumed that he would go back to the bus station, get another bus and drive it back. However it was on the cards and we all knew it, that there wouldn’t be a spare bus at the station, not at least until the next day. We feared the worst.
The cold drove most people back into the bus. Some people chatted, others tried to sleep. Now and then a truck or car drove past, illuminating the inky darkness with their lights.
I got out and went for a walk.
On either side of the road was a wall of dense and formidable jungle – a mad tangle of vines and trees and ferns silhouetted under star light. Down the road a kilometre or so, was a small gathering of huts set back from the road in an area hacked out of the jungle. Their roofs were made of dried and compacted grass, their walls of bamboo and thatched palm leaves. Around each house was a garden fenced off with split bamboo palings. In the gardens were rows of vegetables. There was no one to be seen, no lights. Everyone was asleep and no one stirred even after some dogs began barking at my approach.
The driver reappeared after an absence of a couple of hours.
A truck stopped and he jumped out – carrying a huge section of pipe and a bag.
He had gone back to the bus station and somehow, got another drive shaft (probably cannibalized from another Japanese bus) and was now going to fix the bus himself.
It was 10 pm and it was freezing.
For two hours he was under the rear axle of the bus hammering, bashing, fastening and I don’t know what else.
A few of us –from the westerners – took it in turns to shine our torches under the bus so he could see what he was doing. After 20 minutes or so the cold drove whoever it was who was holding the torch back inside the bus, whereupon someone else would take over.
Wasn’t the bus driver cold – he a Laotian, and used to the heat?
None of us could quite believe what we were seeing: single –handed, with a hammer, a spanner, a rock and screwdriver, the bus driver was installing a new drive shaft.
It defied anything we thought possible.
As one of the Americans quipped: ‘I’ve heard of ‘do it yourself’ but this is ridiculous!’
We were all tired but we also knew that we were witnessing something which was beyond our frame of reference: the ability to make something out of nothing, to repair the irreparable. What that little man was doing was for us so bizarre, it could have been a midnight ritual performed by a shaman hailing from a long-lost mountain tribe. We came from a materialistic culture where very few products were mechanical. They were systems involving highly complex circuits and concepts; motor cars, mobile phones, tablets, computers, cd and DVD players and so on. When they malfunctioned they were thrown out or placed in the hands of an expert in order to be repaired.
Fix something ourselves?
It was different though when you lived in a poor country where you had nothing, where you were dependent on your ability to make something out of nothing.
You had to be resourceful, inventive.
D.I.Y. took on a completely different meaning.
A few days later, on the Plain of Jars, I relived that night with an almost hallucinatory intensity.
Lying on a high altitude plateau situated between mountains near the borders of Vietnam and Cambodia, the Plain of Jars was an archaeological wonder. At various places on the plain were clusters of big stone jars carved around 2000 years ago from boulders. Some of them were quite large and weighed a few tons, many others were far smaller. The jars were mortuary urns; in ancient times, a body was placed into a jar in a foetal position and left to rot (the jars originally had lids). The idea was that the spirit of the deceased person had to be ‘distilled’ out of the corpse. In these stone urns, the dead were returned to a symbolic womb, a place where the process of conception, pregnancy and birth was reversed; the spirit, the life force, seeped out of the physical body and travelled back to the Beyond. After some time in the stone urn, the remains of the corpse was taken out of the jar and cremated. Thousands of years ago this practice was commonplace all over south-east Asia; today is still practised in the case of the royal families of Thailand and Cambodia.
Why were these clusters of stone jars on such a remote plain?
2000 years ago, the plain lay at a crucial junction point of several major trading routes. Furthermore, a large relatively flat area amongst the mountains meant a place where crops could be grown and houses and roads built. In other words the stone jars were evidence of the existence of a people which had made the transition from a simple hunting and gathering existence to a complex society: a society which had discovered agriculture and built towns, which had grown prosperous thanks to trade with distant lands and developed an elaborate physical philosophy concerning life and death. The stone jars were evidence of a society which had developed the tools and technology necessary for quarrying boulders, transporting them for considerable distances and carving them into urns with the precision of a lathe.
There was more than archaeology to see at the Plain of Jars though.
There were also relics from recent times.
Ugly, lethal relics.
In the mid-1960’s, with the Vietnam War reaching its terrible climax, the Vietnamese communists invaded eastern Laos and Cambodia and used these areas as bases for sending troops and supplies to support the communist guerrillas in South Vietnam. They didn’t care about the sovereignty of Laos or Cambodia, two Buddhist nations which were neutral and had tried to stay out of the war.
The Vietnamese communists knew that their presence in Laos and Cambodia would inevitably bring a fearsome retribution from the U.S.: and how fierce that retribution proved to be!
The people living in eastern Cambodia and Laos were caught between two implacable enemies locked in a brutal no-holds-barred war. They became the ultimate definition of ‘collateral damage.’ During its 9 year bombing blitz, the U.S. Air Force dropped the equivalent in explosive power of 450 Hiroshima bombs on Indochina. But it ran 1.5 times as many sorties over Laos and Cambodia as it did over all of Vietnam. In the east of Cambodia and Laos, one B52 plane load of bombs was dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day.
Top of the list of bombing destinations in eastern Laos was the Plain of Jars.
The Plain of Jars became the most heavily bombed region in the world ever.
Like most people who visited the Plain of Jars, I stayed at a town called Phonosovan.
In 2006, it was a very ramshackle sort of place.
It had been rebuilt after the former town – called Xieng Khouang – was wiped off the map by American B52’s.
The main road was busy with traffic, the air thick with exhaust fumes and the places lining the road looked run down and very shabby. It was an unattractive town with an ‘end of the world’ feeling to it. It reminded me of photos I’d seen of towns in Mongolia.
There were three sites where the ‘UXO’ – unexploded ordnance – had been sufficiently cleared to allow visitors to visit a cluster of jars.
The biggest one was known as ‘Site 1’.
I caught a scooter taxi out there.
The trip out there took me along the main road east out of Phonsovan. The sky was a thick blanket of cloud and it was cool. The road gradually ascended through low rolling hills. There was hardly a tree to be seen anywhere. The landscape was arid, semi desert. There were towns on the way, gatherings of run down shacks and shops. The road was sealed, but it had suffered innumerable bad repair jobs over the years and in places it was very rough.
For decades, the UXO (‘unexploded ordinance’) had made it impossible not only to develop the Plain of Jars as a tourist attraction, but also, for archaeologists to undertake diggings around the jars and find out more about the civilisation which constructed them. In the words of Unesco: ‘the Plain of Jars remains one of the most dangerous archaeological sites in the world.’
What a bizarre place.
Jars and bombs; the remnants of a mysterious two thousand-year old Bronze Age civilisation and piles of deadly junk left over from a terrible twentieth century war.
There weren’t any scooter taxis around when I was finished looking around Site 1, so I walked back. The walk was unspectacular in terms of scenery. I had to stay close to the main road because of the UXO and this meant being enshrouded in clouds of acrid diesel exhaust every time a bus or truck passed by. In addition, village fires filled the air with smoke. I tied a handkerchief around my face.
I passed small gatherings of houses and huts where the constant reminders of the war could be seen. Bomb casings had been used as stilts for houses or had been split in half and used to make fences with.
As I approached the outlying suburbs of Phonsovan, passing dingy stalls and wooden houses on stilts and fields and ponds, I thought about the scene which had greeted the survivors of the war as they emerged from their caves in the distant mountains: all the towns, villages and temples gone, the land pock-marked with deep craters and filled with UXO.
When the war was finally over, the Buddhist cave dwellers had proceeded to do the impossible: to resume their lives in the midst of a surrealistic, tortured landscape.
They scavenged the Plain for the metal. They turned the war junk into all sorts of tools and implements: woks, pots, knives, ploughs, spades, axes, picks, rifles – and even cigarette lighters.
Do it Yourself
The scavenging was a high risk activity. Countless people – and children were blown to pieces. One of the most lethal forms of scavenging was digging up bomblets from cluster bombs. The cluster bomb: inside a long, iron torpedo-shaped casing, were 150 tennis ball sized bomblets, each one containing 250 steel pellets. When the cluster bomb was dropped, it split in half just above the ground. The bomblets scattered over an area of 2,000 square-metres. They either exploded on impact or remained on the ground like mines. The bomblets were not meant to kill men, but instead, maim them – a wounded soldier was more trouble to the enemy than a dead one.
The Plain was full of these bomblets.
For years, people went in search of them and prized them open for the high explosive. The explosive fetched about a dollar a kilo. There was about ten cents worth in one bomblet. There are many metaphors and images which journalists, writers and film makers use to try to bring home to an affluent western audience the awful reality of third world poverty. Surely no image can capture that reality better than that of people trying to prize open bomblets for the equivalent of ten cents each.
To catch the bus leaving Phonsovan for Xan Neua, near the border of Vietnam, I had to get up before dawn. The bus station was a few kilometres outside Phonsovan. Torch in hand I walked through silent back alleys and along a deserted road. The first light crept over distant mountains as I arrived at the bus station.
I joined a silent group of Laotians gathered under a rough cement roof and open on all sides. Dawn broke and before me was a view of bare hills enshrouded in mist. A wind sprang up and the people waiting for their buses, all rugged up, shivered.
Looking at the gaunt hills I saw bombs falling, the burning clouds of flame, ear-splitting noise, the ground shuddering: the sheer terror.
Long years of it.
Then the scene of bombs falling from the night sky was replaced by another.
I was back in the mountains between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. I was on torch duty. I could feel the torch in my hand. There was a beam of light illuminating that little man lying beneath the bus, his gaze fixed upon the dark metal undercarriage. And in that beam, I saw generations of others, people like him born poor in a poor country, finding ways to do the impossible. I saw a history of hardiness, of adversity, and also, triumph. Of equanimity in circumstances which would test the patience of a saint.
In the sounds of his hammering I heard the sounds of so many other workmen, repairers, do-it-your-selfers.
For images of Laos see: